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Emotional Homicide: Embarrassing Others

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Apr 10, 2005
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I. A Shocking Severity

The halakhic correlation between emotional and physical assault is perhaps most starkly conveyed by a talmudic passage concerning Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Yehudah. (Bava Metzia 59a, Berakhot 43b, Sotah 10b, and Ketubot 67b). Twice widowed from sons of Yehudah, she was accused of being unfaithful to his family, to which she maintained an obligation to marry into a third time, in keeping with the laws of yibbum. Unbeknownst to the court, which stands ready to execute her, the father of her unborn child is actually Yehudah himself. Tamar refuses, however, to save herself by explicitly volunteering this information, an act that would surely humiliate Yehudah. This noble act of near-sacrifice prompts the derivation of another halakhic principle: “Better for one to hurl himself into a fiery furnace than shame his fellow in public.”
This principle mandating the sacrifice of one’s life before that of another’s dignity commands much rabbinic attention. The authors of the Tosafot (Sotah 10b, s.v. Noach) question the absence of humiliating others among the talmudic list of those transgressions requiring martyrdom, such as murder, idol worship, and sexual immorality. They respond by limiting this list to those prohibitions explicitly mentioned in the Torah, a standard that embarrassing others apparently does not fulfill. The very question, however, is predicated on the assumption that humiliating others does indeed require the ultimate sacrifice in its avoidance. (See Chid. HaGriz to Sotah). Sharing this view is the Sha’arei Teshuvah (3:139), who rules that this prohibition takes precedence over self-preservation.
The Meiri, however, is clearly not of this mind, for in his talmudic commentary (Berakhot 43b and Sotah 10b) he interprets the talmudic comment to be derekh he’arah and derekh tzachut, – that is, not to be understood as practically authoritative. Similarly, a perusal of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah uncovers no requirement for martyrdom in this instance. The Pri Chadash, in his glosses to Mishneh Torah, does cite the position of Tosafot as authoritative and apparently feels the Rambam to be in consonance with this view; furthermore R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, in his Responsa Minchat Shlomo (no. 7) writes “with the exception of the Meiri, all rishonim have interpreted the statement in accordance with its literal meaning.” Nonetheless, the Rambam’s complete omission is generally taken to be significantly indicative of his position.

II. Humiliation as Murder: A Literal Comparison?

Nonetheless, it seems clear that a concern more fundamental to the local issue informs this dispute among the rishonim. The Talmud, earlier in this same passage (58b), identifies the logic relevant to its conclusions. One who shames his fellow in public, we are told forcefully, is as if he shed blood. We are even provided with physiological evidence of this moral relationship; when one is embarrassed, azil sumaka v’ati hivara, the features lose their red color and turn white; thus, the talmudic term for humiliation, halbanat pariim, “whitening the face.” While this does seem to contradict empirical observation, as an embarrassed individual, blushing, is normally red-faced, R Ovadiah of Bartenura offers an explanation (Avot 3:11). At first, an embarrassed individual reddens in the face, as he initially experiences rage at what has occurred. However, once he fails to provide a satisfactory response, his concern turns inward to an internal sense of worry, and the blood leaves his face, resulting in the whitening of the face.
The question, then, becomes the evaluation of this comparison between homicide and humiliation. This issue serves as an analytical prerequisite to any question of martyrdom. How are the Talmud’s words to be taken? Is humiliation indeed equivalent to murder in all respects, to any and every extent? Or, rather, is the phrase a homiletical device, worded to convey the intense severity of the prohibition but never meant to be equated with murder to the fullest sense of its ramifications?
Accordingly, Rabbeinu Yonah, cited earlier as obligating self-sacrifice in his Sha’arei Teshuvah, identifies embarrassing others as avak r’tzichah, an equivalent derivative subcategory of murder, in his commentary to Pirkei Avot (3:11)
Consequently, later authorities lined up to takes sides on the martyrdom issue. R. Ya’akov Etlinger concluded that in his view the majority position indeed forbids humiliating another even at the expense of one’s life (Responsa Binyan Tziyyon 172 and 173. See also R. David Rozenberg, Responsa Minchat David 2:79, and Responsa D’var Yehoshua, vol. 2.). R. Ovadiah Yosef (Responsa Yabbia Omer vol. 6, Yoreh Deah 13) considers the issue and does not appear to offer an explicit conclusion. (Although some assume that he rules stringently, see Dr. Abraham S. Abraham, in the journal HaMa’ayan, vol. 20, no. 2:17-25, and R. David Barda (who advances the argument to disagree), in Ohr Torah 24:50, and R. Avraham Dori’s response in 24:93. A stringent approach also is implied in R. Yosef’s commentary to Pirkei Avot, Anaf Etz Avot (3:15).
Further, even if theoretically martyrdom was called for, the variability present in all real life situations makes it impossible to put such policy into practice. The unpredictability of the other’s reaction and sensitivities make actual self-sacrifice unfeasible. R Pinchas Levinson [in the journal HaPardes, vol. 39, no. 4:16-20 (29), and continued in vol. 39, no. 6:16-17 (42).] notes that the concept is phrased in the Talmud, atypically, as a matter of “preference.” This is to signify that it is reflective of the assumption that the victim would equate humiliation with his own death; however, as there always exists a possibility that this is not true, one may not allow oneself to be physically killed to avoid the embarrassment. Thus, what emerges is a theoretical equation that conveys a tremendous seriousness inherent to the prohibition but that would in no situation actually allow the martyrdom to be put into practice.
Among those dismissing the martyrdom requirement as inconceivable is R. Asher Weiss, who further posits that any measure taken in the furtherance of justice is immune from the taint of the prohibition of humiliation. Building on a comment of R. Yaakov Emden, he observes that all attempts to obtain justice involve placing a defendant or suspect in an embarrassing position, and yet no one would entertain the notion that all such endeavors are impossible. He acknowledges, of course, that within such activities, every effort should be taken to reduce embarrassment, while that concern does not necessitate waiving the needs of jurisprudence. (Minchat Asher al haTorah, Genesis, 53).
The definition of the relationship between humiliation and murder as a homiletic comparison or, more severely, as an absolute equation apparently lies below the surface of other halakhic discussions as well. R. Shlomo Kluger, commenting on the Shulchan Arukh, (Chokhmat Shlomo to Choshen Mishpat 427:1.) records a surprising and, as he acknowledges, unprecedented ruling concerning the obligation to rescue one whose life is in danger. While it is understood that such an obligation does not attach itself at the cost of one’s own life, R. Kluger extends this notion further, maintaining that a person need not save another’s life if he himself will consequently endure humiliation, Emotional death, humiliation, would seem in his analysis to possess a genuine equivalency to physical death. The Kli Chemdah (Ki Tetze, 6), writes extensively to refute this notion, as do many other authorities. More recently, R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Minchat Shlomo, 9) rejected this ruling, noting that “it is impossible to compare self-inflicted humiliation to embarrassing others.”

III.Violating the Sabbath, and Other Implications

However, R. Auerbach’s opposition to this innovation does not necessarily imply a rejection of the absolutist understanding of the humiliation/murder comparison. R. Auerbach, until his death considered one of the leading halakhic authorities in the world, authored an extensive discussion, published in his Responsa Minchat Shlomo (no. 7) as well as other places, of the principles regulating the suspension of the laws of Shabbat in order to save a life. Toward the end of this discussion, he expresses considerable difficulty with the accepted assumption that one may not violate the Shabbat to avoid humiliating another person just as one would to save that person’s life. He acknowledges that there certainly are some differences between embarrassment and death, disagreeing as he does with the aforementioned opinion of R. Kluger and noting further that no one would ever suggest that it is permissible to kill someone who attempts to embarrass him, claiming self-defense. Nonetheless, he still considers the comparison to be of sufficient weight to warrant, at least upon initial consideration, pushing off considerations of Shabbat. R. Auerbach expends great effort to explain this discrepancy between theory and practice, offering at one point to allow passive and rabbinical violations of the Shabbat in accordance with the laws of k’vod habriyot, maintaining human dignity. He ultimately is unsatisfied in this struggle, concluding “the issue continues to need a definitive decision.” R. Yosef Roth (Siach Yosef, vol. 2, 11:3) observes that the purpose of violating Shabbat in instances of mortal danger is the preservation of physical life and does not stem from the severity of the crime of murder. Therefore, even if humiliation is equated absolutely with homicide, it does not necessarily follow that superseding the Shabbat is called for.
Other issues affected include the ability of a kohen who embarrasses others to participate in birkat kohanim; the ability to waive the right not to be humiliated (see Resp. Yacheil Yisrael, I, 75; B’Shvilei HaParshah, p. 93.); and whether humiliation is considered one of the seven mitzvot applicable to all of humanity (Responsa Shvut Ya’akov 1:164).

IV. Losing One's Portion in the World to Come

It is interesting to note that this question of how to evaluate the Talmud’s comparison seems to be reflected consistently in other comments of the previously cited rishonim. The Talmud states that one who humiliates other forfeits his portion in the world to come (Bava Metzia 58b and Avot 3:11). Commentators offer several possibilities to explain the basis for such a severe condemnation.
As noted earlier, Rabbeinu Yonah views humiliating others to be a subcategory of murder, necessitating martyrdom, in his Sha’arei Teshuvah and in comments to Pirkei Avot. His explanation of the penalty incurred maintains the integrity of this position. He reasons that he who publicly shames others logically shares the punishment of a murderer, who in theory also deserves to be stripped of his portion in the world to come. However, the murderer actually has an advantage in this area. He has committed a crime that is universally acknowledged as horrendous, and society instantly will register its complete rejection of his actions. Consequently, he will recognize the gravity of his misdeed and will repent fully. Having done so, he will continue to bear the responsibility for his actions on the temporal plane but will ultimately achieve atonement, and the eternal punishment will be suspended. However, a person who embarrasses others, although spiritually he is equivalent to a murderer, may never reach such a realization. Society will not rebuke him comparably, if at all, and in his own mind he has committed no serious transgression. Thus, the repentance effected by the shedder of blood will not be undertaken by he who humiliates his fellow, and the eternal punishment will not be suspended.
The Rambam offers a different rationale, and once again it is one consistent with his previously noted position. In his commentary to the Mishnah he observes that shaming others does not appear to be a prohibition that one would intuitively associate with such a severe punishment as losing one’s portion in the future reward. However, the action is indicative of the nature of its protagonist. One who would regularly engage in such behavior can only be one of low character and underdeveloped morality, an individual whose behavior in general will inevitably result in spiritual condemnation. Thus, the Rambam, who declined to impose martyrdom to avoid humiliating others, apparently feeling the homicide/humiliation comparison to be nonliteral, is here loyal to that position. In his view the transgression itself did not earn the punishment, but rather revealed a personality who will prove himself in other ways to be deserving of such.
The P’nei Yehoshua (Bava Metzia 58b) offers another possibility, this time in the name of the Tosafot Yom Tov, citing the Midrash Shmuel. One who embarrasses another and strips away his sense of dignity violates his tzelem Elokim, his creation in the image of God, as noted earlier in the name of the Alshikh. It is this Divine image that is the basis for the soul. One who has displayed a disregard for this image, therefore, undermines his own conception of a soul.

V. The Role of the 'Public'

As the prohibition of embarrassing others is generally referred to as “humiliating others in public,” halakhic authorities turn their attention to the definition of “public,” and then to the question of whether the presence of the public is an indispensable element of the prohibition. While the term b’rabbim, in public, is often taken to signify a group of ten, many assume that for the purposes of this transgression three people constitute an audience. This was the opinion of the Pri Megadim in his Mattan S’kharan Shel Mitzvot, cited approvingly by the Responsa Binyan Tziyyon. Many authorities held that even this number was not necessary for the prohibition to take effect. The Pri Megadim (Eshel Avraham, Orach Chaim 156). rules accordingly, citing the language of the Rambam that it is forbidden to embarrass a fellow Jew, “and all the more so in public.”
Several authorities suggest an intriguing possibility (see, for example, R. Shammai Kehat Gross, Responsa Shevet HaKehati 1:361; R. Yitzchak Kolitz, in Torah SheB’al Peh, vol. 36, pp. 41-44; and R. Pinchas Levinson in HaPardes, ibid.). It is conceivable that the prohibition exists in full force, regardless of the presence or absence of an audience. However, in order to incur the condemnation discussed in the Talmud, such as forfeiting one’s portion in the world to come as well as the exhortation toward martyrdom, the transgression must be committed in public. This possibility requires further explanation.

VI. A Two-tiered Prohibition

The Magen Avot, (Avot 3:15) notes that in the process of humiliating another, one commits two distinct transgressions, evolving from two different passages in the Talmud. The first is the topic of the talmudic text cited earlier (Bava Metzia 58b), ona’at d’varim, “verbal” oppression, subsumed within the biblical prohibition, “a man shall not oppress his friend.” Thus, all humiliation is subsumed under the umbrella of verbal oppression, as it inflicts emotional pain. It would seem that no reason exists to distinguish between private and public violations of this prohibition.
Further, the Talmud elsewhere (Arakhin 16b) notes another relevant transgression. The Torah obligates every individual to take upon himself the spiritual well-being of his fellow, exhorting, “You shall surely rebuke your friend.” (Vayikra 19:17.) However, lest one think this project should be pursued even if it results in “changing the color of his face,” the Talmud is quick to cite the end of the verse: “and you shall not bear iniquity because of him.” The warning is not to allow the fulfillment of this commandment to simultaneously cause a transgression of humiliating another. It would then appear to go without saying that one without the religious motivation of rebuke is certainty admonished to take care in his treatment of others; this is similar to the prohibition of striking another, which is derived from the warning to the administrator of the penalty of lashes, “forty times you shall hit him, do not exceed this.” If in the midst of a biblically sanctioned punishment a prohibition against additional lashes still exists, how much more so when there is no such setting.
If the prohibition of verbal oppression addresses the hurt feelings and emotional scarring caused by embarrassment, another element of the offense yet remains to be covered by “you shall not bear iniquity because of him.” In addition to the pain felt by the humiliated individual, there is the completely separate component of the stripping away of human dignity, the lowering of status within society. In this respect, it would seem more likely that the degree of publicity attendant to the incident would have a direct effect on the severity of the offense. This follows along the lines of the aforementioned comments of the Alshikh, the Tikkunei Teshuvah, and the P’nei Yehoshua; the Divine image, the source of human dignity, has been compromised. Along these lines as well, R. Shalom Martzbach (in MiPri Yadeha, pp. 223-228). suggests that one may waive one’s right to be protected against verbal oppression in its base form, but not if humiliation is involved, as this offends the Divine image. This violation is to a great extent defined by the presence of a community in which to bear the disgrace, and thus it is understandable that the greatest level of condemnation should be reserved for those who would inflict humiliation in such a setting.

The Chinnukh concludes his discussion of the prohibition of humiliating others by noting that there is no punishment of lashes for this offense, in spite of its biblical status, as it is a non-physical crime, although he does end with the ominous phrase “many messengers exist for the Almighty to exact payment from those who violate His wishes.” The Mordechai, however, does mandate lashes for the transgression of verbal oppression. (Bava Metzia 4:306, see also Shiltei Giborim). The Chiddushei Anshei Shem raises the objection of the nonphysical nature of the offense and concludes that the reference is to the rabbinical version, makkot mardut, which may actually be applied more severely. The Rama (Choshen Mishpat 420:38) cites this interpretation of the Mordechai. Monetarily, however, the Talmud (Bava Kama 91a) excludes verbal embarrassment from the reparations associated with personal injury. In either case, the Yam Shel Shlomo (Bava Metzia 8:49) rules that the lashes can be commuted to a monetary fine; whether such fines are paid to the victim or to charity is a matter of some dispute. The Rosh (Bava Kama 8:14) recommends excommunicating one who humiliates others, and the Rambam notes that latitude is granted to a rabbinical court to take punitive and preventative action as they see fit (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Chovel U’Mazik 3:5. The positions of the Rambam and the Rosh are both recorded in Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 1:5 and 420:38.) Special consideration is given if the humiliated party is a Torah scholar (Mishneh Torah, Chovel U’Mazik 3:6). R. Tzvi Lifshitz, writing in the halakhic journal Techumin, Vol. 37, p. 381. undertakes an extensive discussion of financial penalization of those who embarrass others in modern times. (See also R. Ezra Basri, Responsa Sha’arei Ezra 3:326,R. Ephraim Moshe Korngut, Ohr Yechezkel, pp. 360-363; and R. Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, Kovetz Teshuvot, 2:129.)
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    Anonymous: 
    1. Title: There are many cases to be considered
      Author: Larry Brooks ,

      The fact that Rabbis so early on recognized that verbal abuse can be as painful as physical abuse is a remarkable and wonderful insight.  However, I that believe addressing the different cases under which this can happen and various nuances could lead to  a more fruitful discussion.  First is the attitude of the abuser; was his inentions malevolentl or was the pain caused accidental, for example because the remark hit sensitive berve in other person.  If it was accidental and occurred between mature adults the offended party can often defend themsleves in a constructive manner that resolves the problem.  Even if there was malevolence the intervention of mediator, Rabbi or other counselor is a much better solution "suicide."  The case of immature children on one another or adult on child is a whole different situation.  Among children, verbal abuse can rapidly escalate to physicsl violence, a topic which has been a lot in news lately.  Adult verbal abuse of children is a topic much analyzed since Freud's insights.  It can have negative repurcussions that last a lifetime and severely impact a perons ability to enjoy life and be a productive member of society.  I am greatly interested in whether some of these more specific cases are addressed anywhere is Jewish literature.

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